After leaving the church I made my way through the elegant streets of Newark passing by half timbered medieval houses, grand Georgian mansions and rows of traditional shops. In places it reminded me of The Shambles in York but without the crowds or the tourist tat shops.
My next destination was the National Civil War Museum because since my Dad bought me an Airfix model kit of Oliver Cromwell in about 1960 I have always been fascinated by the English Civil War. I think this was a defining moment in my life, I immediately became a Roundhead, a Parliamentarian and later a socialist, on the side of the people fighting against wealth, influence, privilege and injustice.
There was also an Airfix model of Charles I but I had Cromwell first.
I also blame a book my Dad gave me about British heroes in which Cromwell was included but Charles Stuart wasn’t.
An illustration from the book…
In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll to identify the Greatest Briton and Cromwell came tenth, hard to believe that he could come behind Diana, Princess of Wales and John Lennon but there you are, such is the nature of these polls and the mentality of the people who vote. Two thousand years of history and Princess Diana and John Lennon make the top ten. It leaves me speechless.
Due to its strategic significance linking north of the country with the south Newark had an important part to play in the Civil War and the town and its castle supported the Royalist cause and suffered in three destructive sieges which brought destruction, pestilence and disease to the town. Parliamentary forces and their Scottish allies were desperate to oust the Royalist garrison. The last siege saw over sixteen thousand troops seal off the Nottinghamshire town and dam a river to stop water mills producing bread and gunpowder. An outbreak of typhus and plague added to Newark’s woes as the population swelled to six thousand as people fled to the town from the countryside, creating near starvation conditions.
A third of the inhabitants died and one in six buildings were destroyed. Despite this calamity, the Royalist troops refused to give in. The garrison were brave supporters of the King and the Cavaliers but eventually were obliged to surrender upon the inevitable capture of Charles.
It is an interesting museum but I found it a little disappointing, it is rather small and although it has some interesting exhibits the information boards and displays give only facts but not interpretation. I wanted more than iron breast plates and plumed hats, more than flintlocks and helmets but I guess museums like these are for tourists rather than historians.
I have always considered the English Civil War to be the most important conflict of modern Europe because this was a revolution which provided a blueprint for those that followed, principally the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The revolution begins with the moderates calling for reasonable and restrained reform for the exclusive benefit of the aforementioned wealthy and privileged who wanted even more power and wealth. The problem with moderates of course is that they are on the whole reasonable people but by beginning a process of reform they provide an opportunity for radicals and agitators to go much further and the English Revolution like those that followed swiftly gained pace. After the radicals came the extremists, then war, then terror, then regicide.
The English Civil War swept away the supremacy of the Church of England, ended the Divine Right of Kings and embodied the principal of Parliamentary Sovereignty into UK politics. It was the end of medieval feudalism and paved the way for the agrarian and industrial revolutions of the next century. At its most radical period it introduced the principals of socialism and even communism through the power of the New Model Army and the social ambitions of the Diggers and the Levellers, both proto-socialist political movements.
It is a shame that King Charles had his head cut off but even after sixty years or so of being given that Airfix model I confess that I remain a loyal Roundhead rather than a Cavalier.
One thing that I did learn at the museum is that musket balls were made from lead and that 1lb of lead would make twelve balls and that this is the origin of the twelve bore shotgun.
I finished my day at the ruins of Newark Castle. Prior to the Civil War it was a grand medieval showpiece fortress but today it is an empty shell. The Parliamentarian forces blew it up and left it derelict to make sure that it could never again be used as a royalist obstacle to parliamentary supremacy. After the troops were obliged to leave it fell into disrepair and to the mercy of stone thieves who dismantled it as a convenient supply of building material until we are left with what we see today.
It is still rather grand, especially when viewed from the opposite bank of the River Trent but beyond the outer east wall nothing remains except the ghosts of history and pleasant modern gardens.
I had enjoyed my day at Newark-on-Trent and as I drove away I thought to myself that it was about time that I spent more days in the United Kingdom.
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…